Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Mother's Plea for Play

Guest blogger Kanya Shabazz is the program director for Playworks DC, one of DCAYA's newest members. 

As a mother of two African-American boys, I am deeply affected by events that have led to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. We have reached a tipping point….finally. For too many years, I have wondered how many lives it will take before we say enough; before we examine the institutions that make our children feel unsafe, not valued, and not heard. This goes beyond our criminal justice system.

I have worked with school districts in California, New York and now Washington, DC. In every city, I have witnessed acts of micro aggression against troubled youth within school systems. In the District, underperforming schools facing increased pressures to improve academic performance are also issuing an increased number of disciplinary referrals. In elementary schools, students are spending longer hours in academic blocks with fewer opportunities for unstructured time. When students have an opportunity for unstructured time, typically recess, students with behavioral challenges create an environment that is unsafe and exclusionary. In our toughest schools, principals may opt to forfeit recess time all together, meanwhile studies show that play is an essential part of a child’s development.

Schools partner with Playworks to transform recess and play into positive experiences that help kids and teachers get the most out of every learning opportunity. A qualified youth development professional facilitates safe, meaningful play where every kid has fun and contributes to creating an inclusive environment.

Take seven year old *Chris* for example.

When Chris came to the West Education Campus as a brand new second grader, he began acclimating himself to his new surrounding by arguing and fighting with his classmates. Chris’ teacher would often take away recess minutes as a consequence for his behavioral challenges in the classroom. Coach Bridge, a Playworks Program Coordinator, who has facilitated structured recess at West Education for two years, took this disciplinary measure as an opportunity. When Chris was restricted from play at recess, Coach Bridge would have Chris think about rules to make games more fun and fair. After recess, Coach Bridge would meet with Chris and discuss his day while also setting goals for better behavior in the classroom and during recess. Last week Chris approached Coach Bridge:
“You know Coach Bridge, I’m not getting into as many fights as usual.”
“Chris, you’re so right? What changed?”
“Recess is way more fun when I don’t fight as much.”
This is the self reflection Playworks Coaches work to cultivate in students every day.
In every Playworks school, there is a percentage of marginalized youth who have a significant history of aggressive behavior. When antisocial, aggressive behavior can become a death sentence for our youth, interventions that focus on developing pro-social skills (independent conflict resolution, positive language, and behavior and inclusion) are more important than ever. Playworks Coaches reach every child, especially those who struggle most with behavioral issues. Our evidence-based curriculum partner’s youth with young adult advocates who believe that play can bring the best out of every child.

Photo courtesy of Playworks DC

Kanya Shabazz's favorite recess games are double dutch and four square. Learn more about Playworks and how you can be involved here:

For more on youth issues in DC you can FOLLOW us on Twitter, LIKE us on Facebook,SUBSCRIBE to this blog and VISIT us at

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Support #DiplomaBound Youth

Big news for alternative education learners and GED recipients! 

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) has proposed regulations that would amend current District graduation requirements. The regulations would allow local education agencies (LEAs) to offer competency based credits toward graduation with OSSE approval. OSSE also added new language to create a Superintendent’s Diploma for youth who demonstrate mastery of high school competencies by passing the General Education Development (GED), National External Diploma Program (NEDP), or achieve mastery through homeschooling. Now the State Board of Education must vote to approve these proposed regulations at their monthly meeting on December 17th.

Why is this great news?
Think about some of the barriers disconnected youth face when trying to go back to school to receive a traditional diploma.
  • A young person may be very competent in a subject matter, yet lack traditional, in-seat credits to prove it, preventing them from earning a degree in a timely manner. 
  • Traditional high schools offer less flexibility in scheduling, a particular barrier for young parents or young people who feel a financial pressure to help support their families. 
  • If youth are over 21, they can no longer attend traditional high schools, leaving them with limited educational options. 
Preparing for, and passing the GED is a critical alternative option. 
While the GED became much more rigorous in 2013, as reflected in its alignment to the Common Core Standards and Next Generation Science Standards, the test is still seen by some employers as an “easy way out” of mastering high school skills. This perception puts GED recipients at an even greater disadvantage when applying for jobs even though passing the GED and achieving a high school diploma demonstrates comparable mastery of the same core competencies. This perception has led to staggering inequities for GED students in terms of employability and earning power. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2009, GED certificate holders had significantly lower earnings ($3,100 per month) than those who earned a traditional high school diploma ($4,700 per month) regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, or age.

So what will the proposed regulations do for DC youth?
By allowing local education agencies to offer competency based credits, young people can prove mastery in a subject, even if they have failed the course in the past. Competency based credits are particularly important for youth nearing their 21st birthday who need to accrue credits quickly before they age out of traditional education options, as they might not have time to accrue credits based on seat-time. Competency based education is based off of a student’s actual knowledge of a subject matter rather than the number of hours they were sitting in a classroom.

By issuing a Superintendent’s Diploma upon completing the GED, students have an alternative pathway to receiving a state-issued diploma which proves their high school competency. This diploma would open doors for the over 7,500 youth (ages 16 – 24) in DC who are not currently enrolled in school or other educational programs.

And DC is not alone in this practice, 31 states provide either a traditional state diploma or an equivalency diploma upon students passing the GED. This includes our neighbor to the north, Maryland, which offers a state-issued diploma for GED attainment. As a result, District youth are currently at a disadvantage in the regional labor market. Employers considering a candidate from Maryland see a state issued diploma on their resume, while a candidate from the District may only claim GED attainment on their resume. Though both candidates have demonstrated the same mastery of the same concepts, studies show that preference is often given to the diploma holder.

How can we ensure these regulations become District policy?
On December 17th, the State Board of Education (SBOE) will vote to approve these proposed regulations, and we need your help! Here are some things you can do to ensure the SBOE supports these critical steps towards rigorous, yet flexible, educational pathways that acknowledge the unique needs of disconnected youth and adult learners: 
Tweet and/or email this blog to current board members to voice your support of the proposed regulations. 
Remember to use the hashtag #DiplomaBound so the conversation is loud and clear on Twitter.

View SBOE emails, twitter handles, and sample tweets.

Together, we can make sure DC creates educational pathways so all hard working residents can be #DiplomaBound and economically stable. Ask the SBOE to vote “YES” on OSSE’s proposed regulations to amend current District graduation requirements.

Follow our disconnected youth & youth workforce development policy analyst Amy Dudas at @amy_dudas and @DCAYA on twitter to stay updated on the progress of these proposals. 

For more on youth issues in DC you can FOLLOW us on Twitter, LIKE us on Facebook,SUBSCRIBE to this blog and VISIT us at

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Reflecting on the Past Year

Holiday Letter from the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates executive director, Maggie Riden.

The holiday season and start to a new year is a natural time of reflection, a time of pause where we recall the poignant moments of the past twelve months. Where we mourn our losses, but also celebrate our successes. As a family of passionate youth advocates, we have a little of both.

Our losses this year are still, for many, very fresh. Marion Barry was a passionate advocate. He was a powerful presence and in many ways, the original youth champion. His belief in the power of the people, and his work to give every DC resident a voice is unparalleled. The disappearance of Relisha Rudd continues to be a loss that reverberates throughout our community. It’s an echo of sadness that, for those closest to her, will never cease. The tragedy in Ferguson, the death of Michael Brown and subsequent community conflict has become a stark reminder that as a nation we have much work to do in addressing race, equity and equality. It’s important to acknowledge these moments.

It’s equally important to recognize that tragedy and crisis are fertile ground for profound and positive change.

That potential is what I think about when I think about the DCAYA family.

  • Young people like Charmia, Kyrina, Boogie and Jorge: Their willingness to speak truth to power and their belief in not only themselves, but their peers, reminds me of the power inherent in each young person when they’re given room to grow and thrive. 
  • The staff working with youth at our member organizations: The unsung heroes who are helping youth find their passion and their voice as they navigate the path to adulthood. Their commitment is a reminder of just how critical a positive role model or mentor is in nurturing the life of a young person. 
  • Our fellow advocates: Those ardent individuals who never hesitate to discuss the difficult issues, who are the first to bring a solution to the table. Their work to cultivate creative solutions and refusal to accept mediocrity reminds me each day that big picture change is always possible. 

DCAYA is the tent that brings this diverse array of voices together. We work each and every day to support those future leaders in finding their voice, to highlight the impact our member organizations have on the landscape of our city, and to provide policy makers with proven solutions. Through this collective and coordinated approach, our impact is very real. We are addressing youth and child homelessness with vigor; we are creating quality academic and enrichment opportunities for all young people; and we’ve listened to our youth and are now actively mobilizing agencies, providers and funders to address the barriers young people face when trying to reconnect to school and work.

This isn’t to say our work is done. Know that in the year to come DCAYA will continue to nurture the seeds of change our community has planted. We embrace the challenges 2015 will undoubtedly bring because as a community, as a family of passionate youth advocates, we can face them together head on.

As 2014 comes to a close, look out for an upcoming blog post on DCAYA's 2015 advocacy agenda. Together we can advocate for a truly Youth-Friendly DC.

For more on youth issues in DC you can FOLLOW us on Twitter, LIKE us on Facebook,SUBSCRIBE to this blog and VISIT us at

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

To Reduce Family Homelessness, DC Needs to Focus on Young Parents

Photo taken by Tina Dela Rosa of Charmia Carolina and her child.
We end our Youth Homelessness Awareness Month blog series with a guest post from policy analyst Kate Coventry of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.

According to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, 661 families applied for shelter during the FY2013 Hypothermia Season and the number is predicted to grow to 820 families during FY2015. Of those families experiencing homelessness, nearly half are headed by a parent 24 years or younger.

An increasing number of DC’s homeless families are young, with a parent 24 years old or younger. These families face unique challenges, because the parents often lack a high school diploma or GED, have limited work experience, and have never had their own home. Addressing the huge increase in family homelessness in DC will require focusing on these families.

No one knows exactly why this is happening, but a clear factor is DC’s uneven economic recovery that has left many residents, including young people, behind. Young workers face a 16 percent unemployment rate, nearly double that of older workers. And wages have fallen since 2008 for residents other than those with a college degree. These worsening job realities and DC’s increasing lack of affordable housing undoubtedly are making it difficult for young families to make ends meet.

Other cities are finding that young parents need tailored services. Like the District, Hennepin County (Minneapolis), helps most families exit shelter with Rapid Re-housing, a program that combines rental assistance and case management for generally up to 12 months. But because they found the program does not work well for youth-headed households, they are piloting a program with more intensive case management, life skills training, and education on how to support their child’s development. Additionally, young families can remain in the program for up to 24 months.

It is likely that young families in the District also need special help. Yet it is not clear what added interventions are needed, because the city has not done much to assess the circumstances of youth-headed homeless families. In April, a coalition of community organizations, including DCAYA and DCFPI, recommended that DC release data on the Rapid Re-housing outcomes for young parents, but this still has not happened.

As the District takes more steps to reduce family homelessness, we recommend the District do more to understand why so many young families are seeking shelter, and then review its assessment tool and case management services to make sure they are sensitive to the special circumstances of young families.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute conducts research and public education on budget and tax issues in the District of Columbia, with a particular emphasis on issues that affect low- and moderate-income residents. Kate Coventry is a DCFPI policy analyst who focuses particularly on TANF benefits, Interim Disability Assistance (IDA), and homelessness.

For more on youth issues in DC you can FOLLOW us on Twitter, LIKE us on Facebook,SUBSCRIBE to this blog and VISIT us at

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Oh SNAP! What can you really buy for $4.15?

Photo found on the USDA webpage "Supplementary Food Assistance Program"

On the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) webpage there is a colorful picture of a mom holding a baby and picking up a red apple with bright green veggies in the background. Under the picture there is a description, “SNAP offers nutrition assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families and provides economic benefits to communities.” SNAP, formerly known as the federal Food Stamp Program, is supposed to act as a safety net for financially struggling families who cannot afford food.

Our friends at the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project took on the “SNAP Challenge" a week long educational exercise where participants can only spend $4.15* a day on food, simulating a SNAP food budget.

The Playtime Project staff shared with us their reflections during their in-office "SNAP Challenge":

Grocery item #1: Oodles of Noodles, $0.67

I am doing the Food Stamp challenge for lunch this week and was not prepared for how impractical it is to eat lunch for $2.50. I went to the grocery store and looked at a cucumber for some veggies...more than $2.00. I went to the canned bean aisle. Again, most of the beans were more than $2.00! I got the beans thinking I would divide it up for a couple meals with rice. The next morning as I was dashing out the door, I realized I needed to season my bland lunch so I sauteed a slice of onion and bell pepper. If I really wanted to save money, I would have to buy dry beans and bulk to soak them. I don't feel like I have the time and patience to do that now, so how practical is it for single parents in homeless shelters to soak beans and saute vegetables on their way out the door?

As I looked around the store feeling more and more deflated about my options, I could "get" in a more visceral way, how much sense it makes to buy "Oodles of Noodles," chips and soda to keep bellies full. It takes energy and time and creative thinking to cook healthy food on a budget and I could feel myself giving up and giving in to what is more practical for a busy live. It is easy to take for granted how many choices money can buy.
- Jamila Larson, Executive Director and Co-founder

Grocery Item #2: Elbow Macaroni, $2.88

As I think over the past couple of days during the Food Stamp Challenge, I have a greater appreciation for the quality and abundance of food I have been privileged to have over the years. Shopping on $22.50 for the week was difficult. While I usually purchase numerous fresh fruit and vegetables, I realized that on a food stamp budget that just wouldn't be possible. Instead I purchased items that I felt would keep me full for the week. That meant a lot of carbs (with rice and pasta), and canned chili/beans. The items I bought did not provide a lot of diversity for meals, I was going to have rice or noodles for the next week.
- Joel Schwarz, Development Manager 

Grocery Item #3: Dried Bag of Black Beans, $1.72

As a employee for a direct service and advocacy organization working with families experiencing homelessness, I consider myself to be relatively well informed about the diverse and broad issues affecting the homeless population. That being said, participating in the SNAP challenge has given me a greater appreciation for the daily challenges that living in poverty brings. The foods which were most affordable and within my budget for the week were those that required a lot of preparation - a bag of dried beans, rice, pasta, and soup. I am fortunate to live in a house with an appropriate kitchen and 9-5 job that afforded me the time and resources to make those decisions. I'm also a single, young professional without children, whose needs I would also need to meet. It is hard to imagine a family that might have the time and energy to make the same food choices that I had made. Week after week, month after month, it is easy to understand that individuals and families would prioritize getting children to and from school, after school programs, searching for an apartment or job, and other necessary tasks over elaborate meal preparations.

It is no surprise that children who experience homelessness go hungry at 2 times the rate of their housed peers. Obesity and nutritional deficiencies are common among the children we serve, but I find that it is the limited choice in food and nutrition over lack of will that contributes to the problem.
- Kelli Beyer, Communications and Outreach Manager

*SNAP benefits are affected by a person’s income, number of family members, additional assistance benefits, and a variety of other factors that require complex calculation. $4.15 represents the average daily benefit.

This piece is part of our month long blog series for "Homeless Youth Awareness Month." Continue reading to learn more about the challenges homeless youth face in the District. A special thank you to Homeless Children's Playtime Project for sharing their experiences with us during Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.  Read the Playtime Project's blog to learn more about their ongoing work to bring healthy play experiences to children experiencing homelessness. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Sex for Shelter

Photo Courtesy of Fair Girls 
The following blog is part of the DCAYA Youth Homelessness Awareness Month blog series

People often place homelessness and sex trafficking into two different buckets of vulnerability. In reality, these issues are often one in the same, as homeless children are sexually exploited at an alarmingly high rate. When they do not have a safe place to sleep or trusting adults to turn to, young people are forced to find a way to survive. Many times, the only currency they have to offer are their own bodies. Sometimes adults force or coerce a young person into the sex trade – sometimes their situations do – either way, this form of sexual exploitation is mentally and physically damaging to a minor’s well-being. To add insult to injury, in DC, these minors are arrested and prosecuted for engaging in unlawful sexual behavior; going from one system of control established by a pimp, to another system of control brought on by a police officer.

On November 18, DC Council will vote on a bill to change this practice. The 'Safe Harbor' bill will ensure minors get care, not punishment, when trying to survive on the streets. Below is an excerpt from our one-pager with a FAQs section that addresses common misperceptions about minors and the sex trade.

It is fitting that this bill is being voted on during Youth Homelessness Awareness Month. It is time we stop arresting and prosecuting vulnerable children who need basic necessitates: food, shelter, and a caring adult.

“When I was a kid being sex trafficked, I was threatened with arrest, not refered to services. DC law has to change. Kids shouldn’t be arrested for being sex trafficked or survival sex.”

- Kiana
 College Student, Survivor Advocate at FAIR Girls DC 

“Our Safe Harbor law has been a tremendous tool as we combat this horrific crime. With the help of service providers, we focus on the rescue and recovery of young victims caught up in the sex trade.”
 - Anita Alvarez
   State’s Attorney, Cook County, IL

“As a Law Enforcement Officer, it is our sworn duty to    protect the public, and that includes our children who are the most vulnerable.  Safe Harbor laws acknowledge that children, who are not adults, do not have the maturity to give consent to be trafficked.  Safe Harbor laws help us put the real perpetrators in jail.”
- Retired Officer Dan Goldsmith, California State Investigator


Q: What is child sex trafficking and survival sex?

A: The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) defines a sex trafficking victim as any child under 18 who is engaging in commercial sex acts.  Survival sex occurs when a child engages in sexual acts in exchange for food, shelter, or other basic needs, whether or not they have a pimp. Under the TVPA, minors engaging in survival sex should be treated as trafficking victims.

Q: Isn’t arrest & prosecution a good way for victims to get services?

A: No, instead victims need to be able to voluntarily access services through police referrals — police training on how to do this is included in the bill. A jail cell or a courtroom are not the most effective ways to present services to victims of child sex trafficking. Victims need to have the time and space to commit to accepting services in order for the services to be effective.  As Andrea Powell, Executive Director of Fair Girls says, “we’ve never had any victim tell us no to services … if they are asked correctly.”

Q: But don’t we need to arrest these kids and threaten them with prosecution so they give information about their pimps?

A: No, arresting victims of child sex trafficking will only lead them to distrust, be hostile toward, and withhold information from authorities. When a victim has the opportunity to voluntarily choose services, the young person is more cooperative in a police investigation.


Photo Courtesy of Fair Girls 

Before the vote on Tuesday, November 19th 2014, reach out to DC Councilmembers through their social media channels. View sample tweets and councilmember twitter handles for guidance as we work together to pass this significant and groundbreaking legislation to protect victims of child sex trafficking. 

For more on youth issues in DC you can FOLLOW us on Twitter, LIKE us on Facebook,SUBSCRIBE to this blog and VISIT us at

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Homeless Youth Awareness Month Blog Series

What comes to mind when you think of November?

Sweater season, warm apple cider, the crackling of a bonfire in a backyard, the smell of Thanksgiving dinner wafting through a home with the sound of family in the background …

For me, many warm memories come to mind when I think about the season.

However, November is also National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, a potent reminder of the stark realities our DC youth face.

This time last year, DCAYA released a Bold Strategy to End Youth Homelessness. The Bold Strategy was created in collaboration with Covenant House DC, Latin American Youth Center, Sasha Bruce Youthwork, StandUp for Kids DC, Wanda Alston Foundation, and the Washington Interfaith Network. The strategy offered a holistic solution to solving the varied problems which lead youth to becoming trapped in the cycle of homelessness.

Thanks to the ongoing dedication of DCAYA’s community of advocates, the Bold Strategy was adopted by the DC Council, written into legislation, and passed as the Homeless Youth Amendment Act. Unfortunately, the legislation did not receive adequate funding to meet all of the intended initiatives.

Where does this leave DC’s homeless young people?

For Homeless Youth Awareness Month, DCAYA is launching a blog series to address the impact of the DC government underfunding critical resources for homeless youth. Follow the month-long series to understand how a family reunification program, additional street outreach, and other youth-focused services would help stabilize a young person’s life.

While the funding was cut short, what advocates are able to do with the resulting funds is astounding.
  • There are 15 new emergency beds to be available specifically for homeless youth. 
  • Advocates and providers will conduct annual Point-In-Time Studies to gather updated data on youth experiencing homelessness.

So enjoy November. Enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner and warm apple cider, but remember your 4,000+ young neighbors who are struggling to find a safe place to sleep or a warm dinner to fill their bellies. Together, as a community, we need DC to fully fund life-saving resources for homeless youth.


Maggie Riden
Executive Director of DCAYA

Click to donate to DCAYA’s advocacy efforts to end youth homelessness.

Click to sign-up to DCAYA’s newsletter and receive updates on youth homelessness advocacy efforts.

As Hypothermia Season is upon us, we want to remind everyone that if you see anyone outside when it’s 32 degrees or below don’t keep walking, take action and call the Hypothermia Hotline 1 (800) 535-7252. You may end up saving a life.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Invest in Our Shining Lights

When it comes to the quality of expanded learning programs, DC ranked second in the country according to the Afterschool Alliance in their latest report “America After 3PM.” As a coalition of youth development organizations, DCAYA knows this ranking is well deserved. Our expanded learning partners are passionate about their programs, focus heavily on quality curriculum development, and hire astounding program staff to reach the various needs of young people. It is truly the dedicated work of these hard working individuals that accounts for this high ranking score.

While the full report and data sets paint a picture of the expanded learning landscape in DC, the smiles of young people tell us a story.

Click the picture to view the Photo Slideshow: Slidely Slideshow

Even though DC is ranked number two in the country for having quality afterschool programs, there are still many low-income children not accessing these vital enrichment opportunities. In fact, even when you look at the numbers there are 31,633 at-risk students attending DC public schools, but only 6,935 available expanded learning slots [INFOGRAPHIC]. It is easy to see the severe deficit in programming for young people who need the supports most.

Access to quality programming for students in at-risk communities is a high priority on DCAYA’s advocacy agenda.

We need to #KeepTheLights on afterschool so ALL DC children have access to the amazing expanded learning programs our community has to offer.

Share the blog and photo slideshow with friends & colleagues to advocate for keeping the #LightsOnAfterschool.

Sign-up to our Expanded Learning list serve to receive updates on our advocacy campaigns and policy proposals throughout the year.

City Kids Wilderness

Thank you to all of our members who lent their smiles and cute kids to our advocacy photo slideshow. Together we can "Keep the #LightsOnAfterschool."

For more on youth issues in DC you can FOLLOW us on Twitter, LIKE us on Facebook,SUBSCRIBE to this blog and VISIT us at

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Turning $15,000 Into $50 Million for At-Risk Youth

Photo by AISM Photography

Letter from the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates executive director, Maggie Riden. 

DCAYA is a community.

A community of nonprofits, funders, advocates, youth, parents and policymakers gathered around a joint vision for DC youth. Our shared commitment to this vision brought us together on the beautiful evening of September 26th for the 10th Anniversary of DC Alliance of Youth Advocates.

The night honored the ground-breaking work of our organization’s founders and set the tone for another ten years of life-changing youth advocacy.

Through the generous support of our community of youth advocates, the Anniversary raised over $15,000.

As an advocacy nonprofit, we are able to turn $15,000 of donations into over $50,000,000 of public investment in youth initiatives. Talk about return on investment.

How do we do this? Through our coalition-building, advocacy campaigns, and policy expertise, last year alone we influenced:
  • The increase of public investments in afterschool and enrichment summer programs for at-risk youth. 

As committed advocates, we are able to take personal donations and transform them into community-wide social change.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you to all of our members, partners, and benefactors. We can only achieve these successes with your support.

By this time next year, with your help, we plan to double our fundraising goal so we can double of our efforts to ensure all young people have:
My three committed and passionate staff members and I look forward to continuing to work on behalf of DC youth in the years to come. It is through your contributions and continued support that we are able to make this important work within our community possible.

Thank you,

Maggie Riden

To view more pictures from the 10 Year Anniversary visit our Facebook Page.

Photo by AISM Photography
Photo by AISM Photography
Photo by AISM Photography

For more on youth issues in DC you can FOLLOW us on Twitter, LIKE us on Facebook,SUBSCRIBE to this blog and VISIT us at

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

How Will You Vote?

Photo via WAMU
It’s election time in DC again, and we’re back with candidate questionnaires so you can know where potential District leaders stand on youth issues.  

The general election is November 4.  We sent questionnaires to all candidates running for Mayor or Council.  We are happy to announce that all major candidates did submit completed questionnaires.

The questionnaire is made up of 5 simple questions, and the candidates were mandated to keep each answer at 150 words or less.  The questionnaire covers expanded learning, youth homelessness, youth workforce development, and disconnected youth.  The questionnaire also has one general question about what the candidate would do in their first 100 days in office to address youth issues.

Without further ado, here are their answers:

We hope that these questionnaires serve as a voter education tool for our youth, our members, and our wider community.  We invite everyone to share them widely so that youth issues are elevated in the dialogue surrounding the election.

Please note that DCAYA does not endorse any candidates, in compliance with our 501(c)3 status.  These questionnaires are simply an education tool and should only be used as such.

For more on youth issues in DC you can FOLLOW us on Twitter,LIKE us on Facebook,SUBSCRIBE to this Blog and VISIT us at

Friday, October 03, 2014

Coordinated Entry: Boot Camp and 100-Day Challenge

This week homeless youth advocates went to boot camp.  There wasn’t a lot of yelling and push-ups, but there was sweat-inducing policy planning and some ice breakers that got a little intense.  

On Monday and Tuesday, along with the Interagency Council on Homelessness and Community Solutions, DCAYA co-hosted a DC policy boot camp on coordinated intake and referrals for homeless youth.  Participants came from Office of State Superintendent of Education, DC Public Schools, Department of Behavioral Health, Department of Human Services, Children and Family Services Agency, Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, The Community Partnership, Latin American Youth Center, Sasha Bruce Youthbuild, Wanda Alston House, and Covenant House.  Together, they mapped out a working plan to build a District-wide, coordinated entry system for unaccompanied homeless youth. 

Coordinated entry is a system where a homeless youth can show up at any “front door” government agency or community-based organization, be assessed by a standardized assessment tool, and then be referred in a standardized way to best-fit programs.  It sounds simple, but it is actually really difficult to get all the pieces in place to make this process work.  

Think about it, dozens of government agencies and community-based organizations, each with their own requirements and missions, have to come together to select and hone a standardized assessment tool.  They have to change their current referral protocols and habits to a semi-standardized referral protocol based off the chosen assessment tool.  They have to create and maintain a living database that shows available housing slots and service slots. Then they have to figure out what happens when a youth is assessed and referred, but there are not enough services for them.  And those are just a few of the challenges.

That’s why the boot camp model doesn’t end after the two-day planning period.  Now starts the 100-day challenge to implement the work plan.  DCAYA and its fellow participants have only 100 days to make coordinated entry happen. This is a very rapid timeline, meant to keep the momentum going to bust through the obstacles that have kept coordinated entry from happening in the past.

This 100-challenge is nationally historic.  While this model has been very successful in implementing coordinated entry for adults, this is the very first time it will be attempted for unaccompanied homeless youth.  The unaccompanied homeless youth system presents more challenges than the adult side: stricter privacy laws, mandatory reporting laws, working with the 18-24 age group that is often mis-resourced, etc.  But we know DC is ready for this challenge.  

DCAYA has been chosen as the lead organization for this challenge.  We are slightly daunted by the massive amount of work that we are facing over the next 100 days, but we know it is worth it.  It will be incredibly rewarding to collaborate with hard-working, creative, compassionate people from government agencies and community-based organizations. Our youth deserve a coordinated entry system when they come to us for help, and we are going to make it happen.

Katie Dunn is the youth homelessness and expanded learning policy analyst for DCAYA.  She is listening to Rocky pump-up music to get through this 100-day challenge.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Interview with Charmia Carolina - Even In My Bad Days, There's Hope

Photo Courtesy of Tina dela Rosa 
This fall, the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates turns 10! On September 26th, youth advocates, business leaders, and councilmembers will come together to celebrate the accomplishments of the past and our aspirations for the future. As a coalition, DCAYA’s story lies in the experiences of our members who make up the collective power of the alliance. Each week leading up to the 10-Year Anniversary Celebration, we will feature an interview from an advocate or young person who helped build DCAYA into the strong coalition it is today. PURCHASE TICKETS

We met Charmia Carolina when she offered to share her story for the DCAYA short video series “Youth Voices”. Charmia’s powerful presence on camera and honesty in the film brought audience members to tears when her story premiered at the DCAYA report release on disconnected young people.

Now, nearly a year later, we followed up with Charmia to see how her life has evolved after graduating from the Sasha Bruce Youthwork program.

Join Charmia and DCAYA at the 10 Year Anniversary Celebration where she will be honored  as an "Emerging Leader," for sharing her story to better the local community. 

It’s been almost a year since you’ve graduated from Sasha Bruce Youthwork. How has your life changed since finishing the program? 

Going from nothing to graduating within a year and a half, graduating with a GED, getting a full-time job and keeping a full-time job, and then getting an apartment today - it’s showing me lines of maturity that I had never seen within myself, that I didn’t see happening.

I work now on the Sasha Bruce maintenance crew. This is my first job and a lot of people started to work when they were 15/16, so this means a lot because I have a lot of responsibilities. It’s also a comfortable environment. I like going to work, and it provides for me and my daughters.

What does it mean to you to be able to provide for you and your daughters?

It means everything because I went from not even being able to buy [my children] something to drink at times when they were thirsty, or when they were hungry and trying to get through those days when there wasn’t much to eat. Now, just to have a job that provides just that, it is a piece of mind. 

What is it like to now work at the program and interact with other young people who are fighting similar battles that you fought over a year ago?

Ok, prime example. I seen a boy talking about how he wanted to drop out of school the other day and I told him, “You’re here at the Sasha Bruce house and you’re thinking about dropping out of school when you’ve got nothing but good mentors here that help you study with your homework.” The boy said that he was having problems with math and cursive and didn’t want to tell anybody because he was embarrassed. I told a staff member who sat down with him and helped him, and when he was done the boy was like, “I want to go to college to play football!” I was glad that I spoke up and said something because the conversation went from he’s not going to school to thinking about going to college. I feel like my voice counts.

Also, I feel like they can relate to me. So anytime I can talk to a young person to keep them on the right track, I will, because I want them to feel the joy that I feel of accomplishing something.

Do you feel like you just needed a person to give you an opportunity?

Yes. I went through school and kept giving up, kept giving up. Within six years I tried to go back three or four times, even to GED programs and nothing really clicked. For some reason, I got into Sasha Bruce out of 300-and-something-people when they only had slots for 30. I got accepted. I was like, this is something I need to do, and if I didn’t change at that point, I felt like I would have never changed. I would have just let time go passed.

What could you say to other youth people who are struggling to get a job or to go back to school?

Don’t stop. There were a lot of obstacles. I could have woken up and said, man, I don’t feel like going in because the baby’s been crying all night. There’s a lot of things out there that are going to stop you. Just don’t stop because if you don’t stop, all you can get is success in the end.

You’ve attended a few Council hearings, testifying about year-round jobs for youth and then recently, on passing the Homeless Youth Amendment Act. What is it like to speak publicly at Council hearings and share your story?
I actually get to speak my opinion to people that can make a change within my community and express to them from a youth’s point of view how we feel, how everyday livin’ is, and what they can do to help us change it. That is a great thing to me because it means my voice means something.

What does your voice mean?

I feel like I count now. At first, I didn’t feel like my opinion mattered. Now, when I go talk to the DC Council and the Mayor, they might remember my name or at least part of my story. I feel like, if I can get them to remember me and I can get them to remember what I’m saying, it’ll stick in their minds and they’ll make a change.

What’s your vision for DC?

I want a lot of stuff to happen. I want the homelessness to stop because that’s a big thing. If you have nowhere to sleep at night, you can’t really focus on the next day or the next meal or anything of that nature. So I want the District to start with that and then help out with more jobs for people like myself who want to take the next step and are willing to work hard.

A special thank you to Charmia Carolina for being a part of the DCAYA 10 Year Anniversary Celebration. Your strength and perseverance is an inspiration for youth and advocates alike. Join Charmia and DCAYA on September 26th and support youth fulfill their bright futures.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Interview with Jamila Larson - Fight for Our District's Children

This fall, the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates turns 10! On September 26th, youth advocates, business leaders, and councilmembers will come together to celebrate the accomplishments of the past and our aspirations for the future. As a coalition, DCAYA’s story lies in the experiences of our members who make up the collective power of the alliance. Each week leading up to the 10-Year Anniversary Celebration, we will feature an interview from an advocate or young person who helped build DCAYA into the strong coalition it is today. PURCHASE TICKETS

Jamila Larson has worked side-by-side with the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates to gather support and draft local legislation that will prevent and protect vulnerable youth from sexual exploitation.

Join Jamila and DCAYA at the 10 Year Anniversary and meet the inspiring executive director who is changing the law to better the lives of DC youth.  More about the DCAYA 10 Year Anniversary.

The following interview has been edited for length.

Why did you start Homeless Children’s Playtime Project?

When I was working for the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) in the mid 90’s, the CCNV shelter was only a block away from my office. I heard in the newspaper that a child discovered a woman’s dead body in the bathroom, where she had died of whooping cough. So I figured the least I can do is walk over on my lunch break and check things out and see what we can do at CDF. I took a walk there thinking I’d head up a toy drive for the holidays. So I visited and really wasn’t prepared for what I saw: Rows of metal bunk beds, sheets for doors, children languishing in the hallways half dressed, not a single toy, just a smoky TV lounge for adults. I asked the woman giving me the tour if anyone ever donated any toys; she said, “Yeah, from time to time, but we keep them locked in a closet so the kids don’t make a mess.” That’s when I realized that it really wasn’t going to do enough just to donate toys, that we actually needed to donate ourselves and advocate for child-friendly spaces in family shelters.

At that point, the demographics of homelessness were shifting more towards families and away from single men. Since then it’s just been growing, and now for the first time in history, families with children make up the majority of homeless people in DC. It’s really been shocking as housing prices have skyrocketed over the past decade and families have really been squeezed out of the housing market.

So, we started setting up playrooms in shelters and staffing them with dedicated volunteers that we trained, trying to accommodate requests from other shelters the best we could. Now we serve about 600 children a year at five different shelters through thirteen weekly programs. The social justice component is very important to our mission and we try to educate our volunteers and empower our parents to speak out every year about the city’s budget to try to make a difference in expanding affordable housing opportunities for families. (We want to work ourselves out of business.)

What do you see in the kids you work with?

I was at DC General last night and it always impacts me to go there because it’s kind of like ground zero for family homelessness in DC. I see so many precious children with boundless energy and boundless potential stuck in a situation beyond their control. One of the young people that I saw last night was the brother of the sex trafficking victim (see story below) and he has been in the shelter for about two years now. He’s 17, he’s a senior in high school this year and he just looks beaten down. He’s just been there for a really long time, he’s been through a lot in his life, and especially these last two years. He was helping his mom look for his sister when the police wouldn’t. I remember him when he was in elementary school, when virtually every young child has so much joy and so much hope for the future. When you ask any kid in elementary school what they want to be when they grow up, they are in touch with their boundless potential. To see their worlds become more defined as they become older, confined by the poor quality of their schools, by expectations of society, lack of opportunity, by the compounding years of trauma that they’ve had to go through; it really wears all but the most hearty souls down and you can really see it in their faces.

How did you begin working closely with DCAYA?

We have been members for a number of years, but it wasn’t until the incident a year ago when one of our teens went missing, that I really realized I needed to reach out to DCAYA. They had far more expertise than I did in terms of the legislative issues that affect youth.

[Background: A 14-year-old girl Jamila knew from Homeless Children’s Playtime Project went missing from DC General. She was eventually found, sex trafficked out to LA. For full details, read Jamila’s blog “Missing: The Will to Find & Protect Our Missing Youth.”]

I think I’m fairly used to encountering road blocks in the field, but this was more devastating than any I had ever encountered. The concept of a child in our nation’s capital going missing and being in danger and not having her hometown look for her was incredibly jarring and really hard to swallow. This was a child I knew from the first grade. The fact that she was in the worst situation you could possibly imagine and literally, her hometown didn’t care because they weren’t looking for her; the silence was scary to me. Then, when we finally went up the chain of command and met with [authorities], that was even more upsetting because I felt so disrespected and dismissed, almost like I was on trial. Even worse was the way they spoke about the child and her family. I then understood another layer of how these systems interact with these vulnerable children and families…the reception that they get, the attitude, the judgment was really shocking. I felt like I was up against this machine and it felt impenetrable. It felt like a really lonely battle.

We were fortunate to find this child and bring her home, but we don’t just want to care about one kid and check that box. Once we discover an injustice that disproportionately affects our children, we want to do what we can to speak out to make sure that changes are made and lessons are learned from the neglectful way that this case was handled.

So the more you dig, the more you see, and it’s really ugly and scary and it’s been an issue that’s grabbed me and I felt quickly in over my head. Then I met with Maggie (the executive director of DCAYA) to have coffee and talk about this case and ask her for help. Venting about the case to Maggie was just so refreshing because you never know when you have coffee with someone what would come of it. Maggie was able to hook me up with Katie (a policy analyst at DCAYA) who really has the policy expertise and strategy to know how to build coalitions and how to tackle something like this. Katie started setting up meetings with legislative folks in the Wilson Building and wanted me to tell my story.

What was so amazing was the Council folks like Mary Cheh and others responded to our call for help and agreed with us that changes needed to be made to the law. Now we’re just hammering out the details to the “The Prevention of Minors Sex Trafficking” legislation. It’s just the most humbling experience to start with one of the most troubling and worst cases that I’ve experienced in my 18 years as a social worker and then actually connect with the people who can help change the laws to prevent other children from being lost. It is just extraordinary. I can’t imagine a more powerful ending to the story, to change the law on behalf of not just one, but hundreds of children every year in our city who go missing.

A special thank you to Jamila Larson for being a part of the 10 Year Anniversary Celebration. Your passion and commitment to the youth of DC is an inspiring example of true advocacy. Join Jamila and DCAYA on September 26th and help homeless youth fulfill their bright futures.

For more on youth issues in DC you can FOLLOW us on Twitter,LIKE us on Facebook,SUBSCRIBE to this Blog and VISIT us at

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Interview with "Boogie" - I'm Just A Young Man Trying to Make It

Photos by Tina Dela Rosa
This fall, the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates turns 10! On September 26th, youth advocates, business leaders, and councilmembers will come together to celebrate the accomplishments of the past and our aspirations for the future. As a coalition, DCAYA’s story lies in the experiences of our members who make up the collective power of the alliance. Each week leading up to the 10-Year Anniversary Celebration, we will feature an interview from an advocate or young person who helped build DCAYA into the strong coalition it is today.

Lawrence Cross, who goes by “Boogie,” was 12 when his mother’s pimp kicked him out of the house. He sat down with DCAYA to talk about his experience and what he thinks the District can do to help youth get on their feet.

Join Boogie and DCAYA at the 10 Year Anniversary and meet the inspiring young man who is using his life story to advocate for homeless youth. More about the DCAYA 10 Year Anniversary.

The following interview has been edited for length.

When you were on the street, did you meet other kids like yourself?
Yes, I met a lot of people that were actually homeless at my age. I didn’t know there would be homeless people my age. You got to think like, there are other kids out here whose not even teenagers yet, we’re out here on our own trying to make it through life by ourselves with nobody helping us. 
A lot of homeless youth when they get put out, they turn to the gang life because that’s the most comforting thing you can see as a family or as a stable place. When you see the gang life, what are you promised? Oh you’re promised, “We’re gonna love you, we’re gonna feed you, give you somewhere to sleep, give you this, give you that.” You end up in the gang life and never end up getting out.

Was there ever a time when you found yourself in a dangerous situation that could have been avoided if there was a safe place to sleep and food to eat?
Whoow, there are a lot. I’ve been through the ringer. There was one situation where me and my brother was trying to find a place to sleep. One night, we got to this one place and this man told my brother to come in the room with him, but me, I thought we was just going there to sleep ,so I went to sleep.  
When I woke, come to find out, he had molested my brother. Then a month or two later, he molested me. So I believe if there was more outreach programs or more people to help us, we wouldn’t have had been in that situation and we wouldn’t have been molested in that way.

What kind of difference do you think more street outreach programs can make for you and your friends?
They could have been a lot of help. There was a lot of young [homeless] men but also a lot of young females and a lot of young females was prostituting themselves just to have somewhere to sleep or just to have something to eat at the end of the day. And young men were going out robbin’ and stealin’ and hurting people just to make food or make somewhere to sleep at night. If there was more places for youth to go, I think the homelessness problem would really go away. If you give us somewhere to sleep and somebody to talk to help us with our problems, we can go far. Like, a lot of homeless youth get locked up just to get somewhere to sleep, take a shower and eat.

Have you seen that firsthand?
I’ve been arrested probably like 10 – 15 times and probably 11 to 12 of those time I was arrested just to go take a shower and get something to eat. Even though it was just a sandwich it was better than walking around not eating anything.

From your perspective, why don’t you think more people know that there are homeless youth out there?
When you hear the word homelessness you think of people sleeping outside, dirty and unclean. You don’t think of homeless people as someone who’s going to school every day having good grades, but when he leaves school every day, he’s going to go sleep in the woods behind the school or he’s going to sleep in the bathroom down at the train station. 
This actually made me think of a situation. My brother’s daughter, she asked me one day, “Where you sleeping at?” I sleep outside. She said, “You homeless?” I said ya. “No you ain’t you got a cell phone.” It made me think that she thinks homelessness is people who don’t have anything. There’s a lot of homeless youth and people don’t know because people are scared to tell people and that they’ll be judged.

Even through all of this, you still managed to graduate high school. How did you do it?
Friends. Friends' mothers. I knew my social security number and everything by the time I was like 12 so I just told them “Hey, fill out my paperwork, I know my social security number and all that, just put my name on here so I can go to school.” 
I finished high school and everything, Ballou Senior high school.

What kept you going to school?
Me wanting better for myself and to show my little brothers that they can do it too.
When I was in middle school they threw an 8th grade prom because they knew a lot of us wasn’t gonna make it to 12th grade to go to prom or even graduate. 
When I finished and got that diploma I realized there’s so many people living around here who ain’t even got this piece of paper and I got mine at 18 when I was supposed to get it.

So then, it’s more than just a diploma?
It’s more than just a diploma, it’s a sigh of relief. I didn’t honestly think that I was going to make it to 18. My life expectancy for myself was 16. I’m at 20 now. If I make it to 30, I’m gonna throw a big party, cause I made it farther than I ever thought I was gonna make it.

Why did you only think you would make it to 16?
Around the age when I was 16, I was what you called a “Yes Man.” If you gonna pay me enough money, you can get me to do anything. I would not tell you no regardless of what it was, I didn’t care. If you were paying me enough, “Yes”. After you snake enough certain people out – which means doing something wrong to them – even if you get out of them peoples life, a lot of them still want you hurt. 
By 16, I crossed at least 20 – 30 people so I was like, man I ain’t gonna make it to 18 so let’s get this will written and let’s get everything finished so I can just die in peace. Now I’m at 20 and my life did a whole 720 from where it was to now, I see myself living to probably 100.

How has your life changed?
I found Covenant House through a friend and it was the first group of people who actually said, “Ok we’re here, we’re not going to stop helping you whether you push us away or not.” Even when you leave the program, you still can come back and have a connection with the staff that work there and they’ll still talk to you if you’ve got problems and help you out if you need help. 
They connected me down to a program that helped me get my first 9 to 5 job. They connected me down to the food stamp building which helped me get food. They connected me to a psychiatrist to help me see if I had any mental disabilities or any problems. They connected me to a therapist and I told him the problems that I had that I needed to resolve to get off of my back to help me move forward. They connected me to a bed and a hot shower and a meal too.

Now, what are you doing at Covenant House?
Right now, I just got my transcript and my immunization shot records and I finished my application for University of the District of Columbia, I’m trying to go to UDC and then Morehouse after two years.

What does it mean for you to go to UDC?
To me it means a lot. It means to show my son that even though my father wasn’t there for me, I’m going to show him a better way of life. What I’m going for is my bachelor’s in social work.

Why bachelor’s in social work?
I’ve seen about 10 to 12 social workers throughout my whole life and a lot of them aren’t empathetic. They don’t understand what I’ve been through. If a young man comes into my office and he tells me that his mother’s being prostituted and the man that lives there is putting his hands on her, I can be sympathetic with that. I can actually help him get to places differently then somebody who has never been through that because I have actually walked a mile in them shoes. I understand how it feels to be in that situation. Instead of saying, “Oh you can do this, you can do that.” actually say, “We need to get you some therapy. We need to get you a mentor. We need to get you into some programs to get you out the house and get you out the way to keep your mind off of it.” because if you sit in that situation and you sit in that environment, it’s going to rub off on you.

How do you see your future now?
Bright. With dignity, bright. Yeah, I’m going to do my social work thing and change the world, one step at a time. 
I’m just a young man trying to make it and change his life. I’m tired of repeating the cycle - it’s time to break it.

What is your vision for DC?
My vision for DC is that there are no more homeless youth. As a city, I think we can do that. 
If you guys could really help the homeless youth, I would really, really appreciate it, because I’m tired of having to go up and down the street and see kids my age and kids younger than me sleeping outside or asking if they can have a dollar or can I have 50 cents. I give it to them because I know that was me a couple of years ago.
Anything someone can do, even if it’s like a cold sandwich. A cold sandwich could change a homeless person’s whole day. I know it’s changed mine a couple of times. I love me a bologna and cheese sandwich.
*Edited for length

A special thank you to Boogie for being a part of the 10 Year Anniversary Celebration. Your openness and honesty sheds light on the issues DC youth face every day and inspires the work of DCAYA. Join Boogie and DCAYA on September 26th and help homeless youth fulfill their bright futures.

For more on youth issues in DC you can FOLLOW us on Twitter,LIKE us on Facebook,SUBSCRIBE to this Blog and VISIT us at